Raku Music

People ask me if I am ever bored when I do things they find tedious. I would suggest to someone like Oscar Levant that they REALLY pay attention and their boredom would be dispelled.
“I never go to concerts anymore. If the artist is good, I’m jealous. If he isn’t, I’m bored.” -Oscar Levant

The Japanese character “Raku” is a beating drum, and suggests the idea of rhythm, happiness and pleasure.  So Raku Loop for  Theremin wouldn’t be a bad idea but I doubt that it would catch on.
For my silk strings, I will need to provide a “filler” to make them smooth, and be sure my adhesive stays intact, yet flexible.  I am looking at a montmorillonite clay. An idea offered about “Moonstone” (or feldspar!) would not seem far off, except for its thixotropic properties. A much finer microcrystalline clay should be better for this purpose. Montmorillonite clays have almost organic properties and can form polymers. I am looking at Grolleg clay, that I am very familiar with as a porcelain clay, for my strings. It will provide a smooth, flexible surface. The natural PVA compound that I have been exploring is the perfect adhesive, I believe.
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How to Use the Yao Staves

I thought for quite a long time exactly what to call these things, that could perhaps more appropriately could be referred to as “dice” but I didn’t want to emphasize their possible use a divination device in themselves, but rather as a tool to replace the practice of stopping to pick up a pen or pencil to write down each line. From my first experience with the Oracle I felt a disconnect with the flow of the Stalks -or even coins, for that matter if I have to pick up a pencil and draw a line.

Staves (end view)

The first time I saw such a set of “staves” used, it was a lightbulb bursting into illumination for me. Yes, you can toss the staves and create a hexagram, just like six dice, but the purpose I envisioned then was to create a smoother way of working with Yarrow stalks!


Since I began working with the I Ching as a primary source of wisdom, I quickly found a set of stalks to use. My first 50 sticks were actually the long Cattail stems I collected from the side of a pond in Irving, Texas. It took me years to encounter Yarrow growing in the Rocky Mountains and, perhaps surprisingly, the time I spent there only afforded me the opportunity to collect the ferny leaves and appreciate the healthy scent of this lovely plant.

It was not until that late time of year in Austin that I found the plants growing long stalks and white flowers on them. Even then, I did not find enough good material for more than a single set for my own use. I did not feel justified to mow down an entire field of these “weeds” for more than my immediate needs! I felt a strong connection to the nature of this plant was needed for me to offer them to others, and it took several years to establish my own plants, of course.

So with that in mind as a basis for connection with the I Ching oracle, it seems to me the Staves need to be similarly consecrated as divinatory tools if they are to function well together with the Yarrow. Their function is to act as a memory device, and for me as a record-keeper to translate the connected movements.

Staves ib Box

Set of Staves in Special Box

I personally like to keep a set of staves nearby as a kind of reference for any number of other purposes, including use as a musical mnomic. How does this work?

If you become familiar enough with the solid and moving lines, the Yin and the Yang of things and events, there is a kind of language there you can use. The Trigrams:

1. of Heaven, Sky or Air, then
2. Wind, then
3. Thunder, then
4. Water, then
5. Mountain, then
6. Earth, then
7. Fire, then
8. Lake or Valley…

…each have a universal meaning that can be used to express something, and coupled with another trigram, will have a special meaning together in the cycle of growth and decay expressed in the I Ching. The relationship of a pair of trigrams is a microcosm that relates a specific meaning you can carry with you as a means of expression.

Since these trigrams create a set of relationships it is natural to apply the meanings to an abundance of processes just as the Old Ones did in Asia for many centuries. I am working on s kind of musical tablature for Guqin at present, and expect this may take some time, but it is only one of many applications I can think of besides the Oracular use. Your own imagination can be similarly stimulated, and your connection to the trigrams more enriched by the use of the “Staves”

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A New Aid for I Ching Consultations

I have seen offered for sale a set of wooden staves marked with the 4 types of lines generated with either coins or Yarrow stalks. But the price was rather high, and with an attempt to actually purchase them, found that they are not actually available not anywhere, after all.

With some deliberation I set out to find a way to produce them, in quantity and for a good price. Not as simple as it might appear! Yes, one way would to track down a manufacturer of small plastic toys, but I’ve witnessed the results of this approach. There is a long setup to a less than satisfactory result, a committee of bad decisions and someone to purloin the entire idea so wonderfully simple that only some thousands in the entire world would appreciate. For me, that may be enough.

So my approach is different. As an Artist, I am familiar with the “long shot” of first to have an idea, then to produce it, entirely my own way. Limited production of something that appeals to a limited audience, is either a nightmare or a brilliance that depends on your patience, I think.

So I sat down at my PC and proceeded to create a print of the series of lines spaced exactly to fit around the circumference of the material I found available from a supplier of wood products to model makers. The poplar wood I found is mostly very consistent and light in tone, and the exacting needs of professional model builders. There are people who create either architectual displays, or model airplane enthusiasts who need straight and true, inexpensive material they can count on. It is to this source I also went in my search for the best material for my idea.

Set of Staves, White Lines on Black

After several attempts, I seemed to have the size and spacing exactly right, and proceeded to make my first run of several dozen. Yet by the end, I began to find several instances of lines too off-center by the time I finished wrapping, and rejected them with dismay. It was not until after several tries I came to realize the exactitude of my wood material was not of the same order as my prints!  What I learned to do was to carefully start out with my placement and retry for fit as I progressed. I did not count on the accuracy of the material, but compensate from the start for the irregularities of the poplar. All this by way I mention is to illustrate again the difference of approach from a manufacturer`s way, to the way of craftsmanship. This difference I have observed in my life as an employee of others, of those who have little respect for materials and often try to force an abstract concept to appear in a living material. Today, I am once again celebrating that I work alone so there is no blame, but a constant interaction between an idea and the even better results of bowing to the needs of the materials.

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Observations Concerning Articles for Divination Purposes

Green Yarrow stalks with French Polish

One of the reasons we typically consult an objective source for our practices of divination is the ease with which our personal ego can often enter into our interpretation.
We use a specific discipline and set of tools to avoid the kind of confusion that results from purely subjective readings. This way we get ourselves, as oracular agents, right out of the picture so that the accuracy of the message will be more apparent to the inquirer.


To this purpose it is a matter of making a ‘good show of it’ thatwe have the best, evocative tools at our disposal.  I provide Yarrow stalks and ‘staves’ (or reference dice):

Wood Staves imprinted with Yin, Yang, Old Yin, Old Yang Lines

to make the process of consultation flow, to maintain a meditative atmosphere that is the preferred process of counting the stalks to determine the lines- Yin, Yang, Old Yin and Old Yang.

Years ago I was learning the many faces of the I Ching, and in the appendices the description of the Yarrow Stalk oracle caught my imagination. I later found them growing in a vacamt lot in Austin, and I thought it would be wonderful to cultivate and offer the stalks to others. It was many years before this was possible, but the widespread use of the Internet for commerce finally came about, and so the time had come.Years ago I was learning the many faces of the I Ching, and in the appendices the description of the Yarrow Stalk oracle caught my imagination. I later found Yarrow growing in a vacant lot in Austin, and I thought it would be wonderful to cultivate and offer the stalks to others. It was many years before this was possible, but the widespread use of the Internet for commerce finally came about, and so the time had come. I planted a substantial bed by our house behind some Rock Rose, so the weedy appearance wouldn’t attract the ire of the neighborhood, but if I had my way I’d replace the whole lawn with Yarrow!

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Torn Bookpage Collage

Used bookstores are the kind of place that I like to get lost in. Martha and I enjoy different kinds of books, so we inevitably split up and meet again for coffee at an appointed time.  She complains lightly that she often finds me in the same spot that she left me, still reading the same book!  But this is not really true at all.

Half Price Books, Dallas

Half-Price Books on NW Hwy, Dallas

Sometimes I wander around with a vaguely disinterested stare until something catches my eye, and then I settle in to investigate.  My theory is holographic.  If I pick up the thread in one place it will inevitably lead me back to where I need to be, and the journey is my entertainment.  I subscribe to The Perennial Philosophy…. in which each thread is always leading back to the essential nature of a thing.

My Pit-fired pot c.1975 with stencil

(see: Aldous Huxley _The Perennial Philosophy_
“If one is not oneself a sage or saint, the best thing one can do, in the field of metaphysics, is to study the works of those who were, and who, because they had modified their merely human mode of being, were capable of a more than merely human kind and amount of knowledge.”)

That is not to say that I subscribe to the romantic sense that someone becomes more than human by some means.  Rather, I would take the opposite notion- that human is pretty darn good enough.  But to realize the full potential of what a human can be, no one approach is better than another, but must be fully engaged in order to benefit from it. There is some meandering thread that brings one back to who or what we already are, but now, from another perspective we might realize what it is to be fully human having made the journey.

Bowl c. 1987

We inevitably have more books than we need and so once again we go back to the used bookstore to trade in our books.  On a recent trip I had a box of books that contained some unusual books and some better collectible hardcover editions that I was pretty certain would be worth a few dollars, but instead when we returned to the desk for our “offer” I was shocked at how little they were worth.  “The paper alone,” I thought, “must be worth more than that!” So when we passed a bin in front of the store that said “free books” I noticed a set of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Literary Works and picked them out.  The paper was slightly discolored at the edges, but it was a rag paper of good quality.

Torn bookpage: from _The Golden Scorpion_  -Sax Rohmer

page from: Sax Rohmer's _The Golden Scorpion_

Musing on the changing nature of books  in a contemporary context, I began to have some idea as to how I felt about the paper and its texture, translucency, the touch of a page between fingers.  The paper was slightly brittle and I began to tear it.  I have cut stencils for many years, going back to my schooldays making snowflakes.  In this case, the edges I created were somewhat soft and meandering and I suddenly thought of my paper applique’ on pottery.  The most successful of these were a matter of removing the paper cutouts after the clay was a little dry and brittle, the edges tearing through the slip with a meandering effect.

Now the torn paper edge had that informal sense I was missing when I used blades to cut the paper stencils, and I could wander to some extent in an unconscious sense of what was pulling me over the printed words. Now, as the openings are defined as the primary shapes to be removed, it leaves the imprint of their absence.

'Strut' Torn Bookpage Collage

This is another kind of thread, and the connections between the thoughts expressed by the printed page are not so obvious.  If one follows the thread it may appear that no passage has occurred, that the lateral direction of separations of letters are not in fact movement at all.  Is it simply a destruction of property?  Does it in any sense diminish the words?  Since I can with little difficulty bring up the entire collection of Robert Louis Stevenson’s printed works electronically, there may be no need of an actual book printed on an actual page.  The words begin to spill out into cyberspace, reflected in the layering of more words floating above the stencils as seen in “Strut” (above)

So the act and the result of tearing a page into complex designs is a kind of renewal of value to the touch and texture of a bookpage.  The words are now a secondary kind of texture that create a kind perspective, floating above.

Now, as I skim through the shelves of books in a bookstore, I am looking at the paper, at the quality of the print on the page.  Some books fascinate with the variety of typeface and placement of illustrations and chapter headings.  The paper, “hmmmm,” I think. Will this tear nicely? What kind of edge will be revealed? It is only secondary that the story can be read directly from the page.  Let’s start a new one.

(I can’t convince my own children to take the time to read them either way. Maybe _Treasure Island_ will one day intrigue my grandchildren, but probably they will read or listen to it electronically.)

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Driftpod, Found Wood sculpture

LOGON: I am excited by this construction, have just added the detail connection between the parts.  For months I just looked at it on a shelf, deciding the exact placement, adding the burnt collar and spot and just leaving it alone.  Then the little wood circle with just that one tiny hole.  It’s all held together with 1/8″ square metal hand forged nails that I worked on my little anvil with a torch.  The wood is so beautiful, it has no need of a finish or other treatment.


Logon, spalted wood construction

It is now available on Etsy, along with several other new projects.

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Graphite, Grease Pencil, Collage

In August my drawings on graphite began to pile up. I began to scan and play them against each other with transparency and color.

Zebra Lines; where they begin and end is another line

To begin with, the lines were just about extent and depth.  Between the beginnings and ends there is a gap that describes another line.

On each page there is a space defined and shaped by each of the lines reflected in the next.

'Range' -a small work on paper using grease pencil.

At the  same time, I was working with the torn paper collages, so I began to draw my lines to reflect the meander and separation of torn paper, but in only two dimensions instead of the three that tearing paper  creates.


Again, essentially the lines look straight, but from an imagined perspective they would change directions but you can’t see that in two dimensions.

It appears far-fetched! But i also found it interesting that between the change of direction on each side it was unclear that they were not separate lines, but one continuous one.

'Then' digital collage

So to continue, by overlaying these elements with reverse and transparency I create a deeper sense of space, and perhaps a little mystery.  The colors are what appeal to me at the time I am making these.  There is the inevitable decision as to how best work one thing against another.  I think that’s what keeps me going, always the open question, “What happens if I do this…?”


In so many ways the lines I was drawing then were a reflection of the kind of torn edge, but the torn edges seemed to become a little richer for the time spend rubbing grease and graphite into paper.

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Two new reconstructed photos: PELICAN, CPCP

I was walking again by White Rock Lake in Dallas, always with an eye for a particularly interesting wave-formed piece of wood, always looking for a length of bamboo. I look out on the lake, and notice the sudden appearance of pelicans, drifting by at a steady pace. I also spy an interesting arrangement between cormorants and pelicans. What’s going on in my mind during my walk? Hardly anything at all. I am aware of my surroundings in a heightened sense- I hear and see all the life around me, and the occasional bicyclist or runner.

Wabi landscape

I feel the wind and watch how the surface of the lake reflects the sky in response to the movement. I watch the clouds form and disperse or meet up and cross over. I shoot a large number of files and hope I find something good tomorrow, while I pick up a couple of interesting chunks of wood, often right out of the water. I find some lengths of bamboo tossed and sculpted by the wave action and often the teeth of small animals. What do I keep and what do I leave behind? As soon as I could list a set of requirements I would cross out half and come up with some more. But in general, they have what I consider “wabi.” That’s another unquantified trait. It’s not my word. It’s not even a word used in my own native culture, but it is a word like ‘prajna’ -a word to describe something my native culture is just becoming old enough to acknowledge. And it’s the search for this Wabi nature that is becoming the definition itself. There is no one particular thing that determines it.

Spalted wood with mysterious inscription

The next day early in the morning I think “Oh, there’s nothing.” I slide the SD card into the reader and look at the files again. Then I calm down a bit and just stare. Soon I begin to be aware that some of them have a somewhat interesting texture. Or some interesting contrasts. I find the waves have useful texture, and one of the pelicans gliding by has left a dark wake and the lake is quiet enough for a slight reflection. These elements, taken one at a time wouldn’t suggest anything. But slowly together I begin to develop a sense of something I missed.

Pelican on White Rock Lake 03-10-12

So I load the most promising file into Adobe and begin to pare away all the extra bits and then develop the wave textures. Eventually I have something like polished, igneous, frothy stone with an aquatint pelican swimming through.

Lately, I have been including some printed copy in a rectangular block. I think it starts as a title, but sometimes the letters are ambiguous; another kind of expression. Something about the monochromatic quality of the finished piece begs for a touch of color, so I have been adding some vermillion stamps lately.

Cormorants and Pelicans

Cormorant, Pelican, Cormorant, Pelican.

I won’t go through all the details of my Photoshop process, because it is very complex, and I never do quite the same thing twice anyway. I’ve been working with the filters in Photoshop so long (over 10 years) in so many combinations I don’t remember any particular combination or settings that will give an exact result. It all depends on what I have to start with, and that’s a huge variable, anyway.

For the CPCP photo, I knew right away that dark stain on the pillar of the bridge was a focal point I wanted to work with. With just the right space between them, with the patient wait for fish to swim by, the thing that got my attention was the alternation of cormorant and pelican. The black and white of it and the balance of small black figures against large white ones had instant appeal for me.

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Spalted Wood Sculptures: PENTE



It’s not easy to describe how many decisions have to be made before I feel like I’ve done anything good with the beautiful wood I find.  The wave action on the surface and the total transformation of the structure of the wood itself through bacterial action makes it almost an intrusion into the natural process.  My minimal drawing style with a torch or hot metal does, I feel, complete a process that started many years ago when the tree dropped a limb that wound up in water, floated across the lake and then came to rest at the shore before my feet.  I eagerly search the shore as I walk along, but it is only when I stop for a very long time -and wait-  that I actually see anything.

New sculpture in progress

Sawed oak knee with recently found branch

My current form of personal meditation is aided by the sound and sight of waves.  They are never the same.  The sound is a kind of music, but not composed music.  It is wild music; untrained music.  The solidity of this music is trapped in the wood, and when I draw on it the musical score that is in my head, I feel like I’ve at last expressed something that can’t be put into words.

Cattail Reeds

Floods at Imbolc

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EGRET: spalted wood sculpture

Ancient Taichi Carving

My approach to sculpture is inevitably connected to my pottery and claywork of the 70’s.  What I always admire in clay is the close relationship between the local terrain (under the ground is always some kind of clay) and the forests above -wood turning to ash transforms the clay into glass.  Ash, then, can become a kind of glaze, and part of the clay.  It’s a cycle that begins with water, of course.  That’s why wood, for me, is closely related to clay.  It’s also why gazing at moving water is related to wood.

It is the Chinese five-element system that I realized one day while sitting out on the site of a brush fire.  The local clay had turned an orangey-red around the edges of the burn, but at the center, where the carbon collected, there were dark bluish bands, and then nearly black.  The black is simply the presence of ink-like carbon, but the blues are the unmistakable alchemical properties of iron.   Iron is the secret ingredient of most pottery glazes, including the beautiful celadons of infinite variety, and the many kinds of of iron glazes that range from rich blue-blacks to warmer reddish blacks to a persimmon color.  As important as color, the textures of iron glazes is a result of the stages of melting silica into glass while the iron itself is transformed by the atmosphere of the fire.  Unless the materials have already been melted into glass, then pulverized and reduced to powder already, the chemical interactions create many stages of bubbles and flow. The exquisite textures of many traditional glazes are the result of the interaction of the elements of glass; silica, alumina and flux.

Five Elements Cycle

When it comes to savoring the qualities of wood, it is as important to be aware of the process of growth and decay.  When wood that was once part of a living tree falls to the ground, a lot of things can happen.  It can be eaten, and slowly disintegrate.  A lot of microscopic activity can transform wood in complex ways.  When a particularly beautiful effect is discovered, it is possible to remove the wood from the original process and work with it.  In this way the process is continued in another direction.

The grain of a piece of wood reveals the process of growth, then to re-present it is a deliberate act of creation.  How much to interfere with something already wonderful is a challenge.  How to present what has been found is an act of revelation.

EGRET: spalted wood sculpture

The best treatment that I have found to interact successfully is to return to fire as a process of transformation.  Pyrography is the deliberate burning of the wood in certain ways to create a sense of human interaction in a minimal way.  I like to use several kinds of torches and branding tools to create marks that are not just added to the surface, but combine with the substance intimately.  I like to use beeswax as a finish- it (temporarily!) stops the process of disintegration and often reveals things I see in the wood when it is wet, but as it dries out the surface seems to die, too.  Using such a basic finish seems to bring back that life without covering too much, or just sitting on the surface.  With the judicious application of heat, the wax can melt deep into the pores of the wood and become part of it.

It is similar to the sense of what to me is a good glaze on pottery; it does not sit just on the surface of the clay, but becomes a deep aspect of the clay itself.  When the clay sits slowly transforming in the fire the glaze combines with it and they become one.

Raku Chawan with Lithium Glaze

There is no real difference between clay and glass, except refinement.  Clay is a little more resistant to melting, but my  favorite thing is to break down that difference until there is only enough difference to keep the form of a vessel from collapsing.  In a Japanese Anagama kiln, pottery is fired for several days until the ash collects and melts into the clay; the pot often becomes so soft the shape of the pot itself is transformed. In a similar sense, the difference between picking up a rotting chunk of wood and presenting it as an art object is only a slight difference, one that could also collapse but for certain deliberate factors.

These factors have something to do with the dynamic interplay of conscious transformation of the wood into something nearly something else.  It may be this delicacy of intent or collapse that keeps me occupied with spalted wood.

EGRET: another angle

Back Side

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